The pharmacologist Bushra Hafez al-Assad was previously only known for two things; being the daughter of the late President Hafez al-Assad and the sister of the current President Bashar al-Assad. That used to be the reason for her fame, but now she is famous because she has left Syria, away from the authority of her brother and his Shabiha forces, and outside the country’s borders.
Bushra is in Dubai; the Monaco of the East, the Switzerland of the Arab world, on the same streets where demonstrations have been staged against her brother’s regime, with angry Syrian expatriates calling for it to be overthrown. Dubai is the only oasis in a region where everyone has sought refuge, whether they are fleeing from revolutions, entering retirement, dreaming of becoming millionaires or just coming in search of a pizza restaurant or a cinema with their families. Everyone has a story in this city, but Bushra’s is different.
Should we call her a runaway fleeing from hell, a defector distancing herself from a crazy regime, a rebel going against her family, a shattered widow with five children, or is she simply a woman on vacation like the hundreds of thousands who have landed in Dubai over the past two weeks?
Of course, one cannot say that Bashar al-Assad’s only sister is leaving her country – currently engulfed in war – for a mere vacation, or as a result of a family dispute. It is a political act, even if she only ends up drinking coffee in a café along the JBR walk - the name of a shopping district in Dubai, not a Russian weapon.
We know that Bushra has fled once before to Dubai, three years ago, rebelling against her brother roughly a year before the uprisings of Daraa and Damascus broke out. She is known for her resilience, and she previously rebelled against her three brothers when she married Assef Shawkat in 1995 [without the blessing of her father], with the confrontation culminating in bullets being fired at her husband. Of course, we do not want to give her a hero’s medal for her confrontations with her brothers, which were in the context of a family dispute. Yet it is certain that she has harbored resentment towards them for a long time, and today she is a victim of Bashar al-Assad, like the tens of thousands of other widows and bereaved who blame Bashar the butcher for what they have suffered.
Three years ago, Assef Shawkat, who was angry with the regime at the time, joined his wife in Dubai in defiance of Bashar, but through mediation the couple returned to Damascus, a decision based on the many promises the Syrian President had given them. Upon returning, Bashar al-Assad gave Assef the worst punishment he could, promoting him to the military rank of “Major General” but relieving him of his important post as Director of Intelligence and giving him a nominal position instead, Deputy Chief of Staff. When the revolution erupted and the revolutionaries closed the circle around the President, Bashar returned to Assef and appointed him as deputy Defense Minister, but Bushra’s husband was killed only four days after assuming the position, in an explosion at the national security building in Damascus, or what is known as a crisis cell.
Why should the world be concerned with Bushra leaving the country, given that she no longer works in a pharmacy or in politics? The truth is that she is an example and a victim of Bashar’s practices and it is clear that she has distanced herself from his actions and abandoned him. Many wives or widows of Syrian leaders wish to flee to Dubai, but “entering the bath is not the same as leaving it”. This is an Egyptian saying based on the story of a man who opened a Turkish bath and declared it free to enter, but when customers came back out without their clothes, he refused to hand them over unless they paid. The customers protested saying that he had made a promise, to which he responded: “I said going into the bath was free, and entering is not the same as leaving!” Many share Bushra’s situation but are reluctant to leave Syria as she did, for as another Egyptian said: “Tonight I fear my death”.
Bushra knows her brother and his bad qualities better than the rest of the Syrians, from his ignorance to his crimes, and hence perhaps she has distanced herself out of grief and anguish. We hope that the rest of the President’s relatives, his inner circle of friends and his sect follow the example of Bushra, to distance themselves from the crimes that Bashar al-Assad is committing every day in their name. It is suffice for them to distance themselves and leave to show that they reject his actions.
The writer is the General Manager of Al Arabiya. This article was published in the London-based Asharq al-Awsat on Sept. 26, 2012